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[personal profile] darkemeralds
Robert McKee: Story: Style, Structure, Substance...
Christopher Vogler: The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
Shawn Coyne: The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know
John Yorke: Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story
Larry Brooks: Story Physics and Story Engineering and Story Fix Larry Brooks

Lately I've been wooed into the left-brained world of editors and screenwriters writing about story structure. Studying these books (blogs, podcasts, presentations...) has helped me see my work's real flaws.

But because I'm more analytical than creative myself, I'm in danger of over-engineering my novel to fit a Grid, a set of Tent Poles, or a Hero's Journey. It's getting hard to tell whether I'm improving my story or ruining it.

A metaphor keeps springing to mind from a craft I'm more proficient in: sewing.



Let's suppose that the initial story inspiration is a beautiful length of cloth. The first draft is going to be a bit like linen-draping, where you shape the fabric with pins around a dressmaker's dummy.

(The dummy in this metaphor is story form. Chances are it will have two shoulders and one neck, be more or less laterally symmetrical, and have a recognizably human-ish shape--the bare minimum structure for the story-fabric to hang from. It's not a full mannequin.)

In subsequent drafts you start cutting and stitching, fitting and forming. At some point you might snip something that you can't seam up again, at least not without ruining the integrity of the particular story fabric, or of the garment you intended to make.

Now, gurus of story structure like those listed above tend to be white men in the corporate story world of TV, movie, and publishing, so it's not surprising that the guidelines they give are for tailoring a suit from wool gabardine around a one-size-fits-all mannequin. Mannequin. Ha ha.

Metaphorically, they say that a story needs sleeves to the wrist, legs to the instep, trousers/skirt to the waist, collar over the collarbones--a certain coverage, a certain fit, a certain degree of simplicity. Add or subtract an element at your peril: you might be creating something, but it won't be a suit.

But what if the cloth your story idea came to you in was crimson silk velvet, or beaded ivory chiffon, or Hawaiian print rayon? To honor that story idea, you're going to have to learn to trust the fabric quite a bit more than you trust The Rules.

Not that a Hawaiian print suit might not be kind of cool, because it totally would and now I can't stop picturing Alan Tudyk wearing it, but he probably wouldn't wear it to the boardroom. It would be, in effect, pajamas.

If your story presents itself as four yards of a leis-and-ukuleles on silky rayon, maybe it wants you to write it in more of a holoku style. Relaxed, warm, flowing, graceful, fun:

Pegge Hopper print of a Hawaiian woman in a holoku dress

And as soon as you put "crimson velvet" and "suit" together in a sentence, you're sewing for Little Lord Fauntleroy, or else for the Elizabethan stage. Either way, there's going to be some extra fabric, some big sleeves or slashing or frog closures; some padding, gold braid, maybe a codpiece. Maybe that story wants to be written to a richer, perhaps bloodier, perhaps more princely pattern.

Crimson velvet Elizabethan doublet

And as for beaded ivory chiffon! I can't even get to "suit" in the context of beaded ivory chiffon. That story wants to be an evening gown in waltz time, or some fabulous drag drapery--either way, it wants to be light, floaty, extravagant (or Grace Kelly cool) but it's gonna break some structural rules, and it certainly won't be a suit.

Fabulous off-white chiffon ruffled duster

The suit-men listed at the top of this post want me to write something that will sell--that they themselves would acquire. Nothing wrong with that. But now that I've spent a year absorbing their rules, I really need to start breaking them.

A couple of creativity gurus who might approve of stories constructed as fabulous chiffon dusters or Magnum's PJs:

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear Elizabeth Gilbert
The War of Art Steven Pressfield

Date: 2016-01-08 03:54 am (UTC)
greghatcher: (Default)
From: [personal profile] greghatcher
I am all about the Rules, as you know. But it strikes me that when you are talking about fabric, on some level, you are also describing genre. Doing the work I do I am usually super-conscious of genre expectations; or, to embed still another metaphorical artistic construction, if you want people to come to your rock concert you better play the hits.

Here's one example I think of when I am constructing a mystery. Years ago Isaac Asimov, in one of his Black Widowers puzzle shorts, laid out a mystery where a guy posed a puzzle to the other dinner guests, kept elaborating as each guess for a solution was knocked down, and in the end the 'solution' was that the guy was just jerking them around, there was no answer, he had been lying. Asimov had constructed that story to make the point that even skeptics will get swept up in something stupid and woo-woo if it engages their imaginations, but in doing so, I always felt he'd lost track of what he was doing, in order to make a point. What he was SUPPOSED to be doing was constructing a puzzle. To have the solution be, "There is no puzzle, neener neener," is just going to piss people off... and they will miss the larger point being made. You gotta play the hits.

Constructing a genre piece, whatever pattern you happen to be using-- comedy, mystery, Regency romance, Harlequin romance, Gold Eagle "men's adventure" shoot-em-ups with Mack Bolan or the Liquidator or whoever-- these all have RULES, as rigid as a sonnet's for rhyme and meter.

You add another layer of complexity when you are doing shared-universe licensed things, because you have the added responsibility of Not Breaking The Toys For The Next Guy. (I am ACUTELY conscious of this when I am working on a Sherlock Holmes.) Even so, that can be fun because the challenge is to try to find a new angle, a way to come at it from a new direction. But you don't lose sight of what you're trying to do. That's what makes SHERLOCK infinitely superior to ELEMENTARY, to my way of thinking; the SHERLOCK folks have never lost sight of what Conan Doyle actually created, and at the end of the day they are still constructing mysteries.

At WITH we used to call this the contract with the reader. They are expecting X from your story: to be entertained, to match wits with the hero, to be moved, to be provoked, to have a fist-pumping FUCK YEAH stand-up-and-cheer triumph... whatever it might be depends on the genre, the color of your fabric. But you gotta deliver on the contract. The trick is to stay ahead of them, to give them what they want without giving them what they expect or boring them to tears.

All that being said, it's very possible to overthink it. A lot of the time, especially if you have a good grounding in the field, you can play it by ear, so to speak-- things just FEEL wrong. I know certain things just won't work in a Batman story that would play just fine with Mike Hammer or James Bond. And so on. Trust that.
Edited Date: 2016-01-08 03:57 am (UTC)

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